Invest in trains
Published: October 20th 2008
Source: Globe & Mail
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The financial crisis has not stopped the United States from investing in
its transportation infrastructure. President George W. Bush on Thursday
signed legislation for $14-billion in funding to boost service and
safety measures in the American passenger rail system over the next five
years. The relevance of rail is rising with gas prices and environmental
awareness and the Canadian government should follow the U.S. lead by
making meaningful investment in the country's passenger train service.
A year ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced funding for
infrastructure and upgrading equipment in the Quebec City-Windsor
corridor - where VIA Rail earned 80 per cent of its annual revenue last
year. But the funding, although billed as "the largest capital
investment program" in the Crown corporation's history, is not nearly
The good news is that Mr. Flaherty (expected to remain in cabinet and
likely as finance minister) appears to be a train enthusiast: This year
he included funding in the federal budget to revive passenger rail
service from Toronto through his Whitby-Oshawa riding to Peterborough -
a route dubbed the "pork-barrel express" by critics. Politics have
affected the fortunes of VIA Rail since it was split from Canadian
National into a Crown corporation in 1978. These days VIA Rail looks
less like a transcontinental railway than a regional service with some
expensive tourist options.
If Mr. Flaherty seeks to improve transportation options for Canadians,
not just Ontarians, he has an opportunity now. The outlook for passenger
rail in North America is looking up, if the experience in the United
States is any indicator. Amtrak reported a 14 per cent increase in
revenues totalling $1.7 billion over the last fiscal year and a record
number of passengers -28.7 million - an increase of more than 11 per
cent. In 2007, VIA Rail had more than four million passengers, for the
third year in a row.
There is still plenty to dissuade passengers from choosing the train
over the plane or driving themselves. VIA's on-time performance dropped
by seven percentage points from 2006.
The company needs to improve its own controllable delays and negotiate a
deal with CN so that freight traffic no longer pushes VIA trains to the
sidings. Funding should be sufficient to increase service levels, not
merely maintain them.
The U.S. government has chosen to respond to Amtrak's increasing
popularity by increasing its funding to boost service and safety to keep
up with demand.
Canada should do the same, and a period of economic turmoil is a good
time for such government investment.